Kids in the Hall

By Andy Balaskovitz

The Council sniffs at appeal, but to no avail

Tuesday, Nov. 9 — The buildup to Monday’s Lansing City Council meeting centered on whether the Council would move to appeal Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s decision to allow Pat Gillespie’s Market Place project to move forward.

It’s been nearly a month since the Council voted 4-4 against allowing Gillespie to pursue brownfield tax credits that would have reimbursed him the costs of cleaning up the site next to the City Market downtown. Aquilina ruled that the Council had no legal reason for denying the incentives.

But a possible appeal didn’t get past the discussion phase, and At-Large City Councilman Brian Jeffries, who wanted an appeal, and the city attorney said this was the city’s last chance. The appeal filing deadline is Nov. 15, the date of the next full City Council meeting.

“How much have we opened ourselves up?” Jeffries asked the Council in regard to a Circuit Court judge overruling the eight-member Council’s decision to block tax incentives for the $23 million Market Place project. “My major concern is that developers have a sense of entitlement to these incentives.”

Mayor Virg Bernero shot back at Jeffries in a ‘How dare you’ kind of tone.

“I just can’t sit here and hear one of our fine developers disparaged by Council member Jeffries,” Bernero said. “Entitlement mentality? I think that takes a lot of nerve (to say).”

Minutes earlier, Bernero scolded Jeffries, At-Large Council members Derrick Quinney and Carol Wood and First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt for voting against the brownfield tax credits that Gillespie has said are making this project possible.

“This is a dangerous game of chicken. I’m stunned that there are Council members playing roulette with our economic future,” Bernero said, adding that it would be “short-sighted” to appeal Judge Aquilina’s ruling, as it “could easily cost the city millions of dollars in damages.”

However, Wood said an appeal would not have been about the tax incentives, but whether it’s appropriate for a Circuit Court judge to overrule a City Council vote. Hewitt concurred with Wood.

City Council Vice President Kathie Dunbar said Aquilina’s ruling was clear: the Council did not have supporting evidence for denying the incentives beyond the fact that labor groups were not guaranteed a prevailing wage.

”We can turn down folks for a variety of other reasons that don’t break the law,” she said.

While Jeffries said he has a “responsibility to taxpayers” because “we forgo a lot of collection of tax dollars with every incentive we grant,” Dunbar said that an appeal would cost taxpayers upward of $6 million, as potential damages to Gillespie would likely come out of the General Fund.

In order to vote on an appeal, the Council first had to vote to suspend rule nine of the City Charter, which adds late items to the Council agenda. That takes six votes, and only five said yes to suspending the rule. City Council President A’Lynne Robinson, Fourth Ward Councilwoman Jessica Yorko and Dunbar voted it down. Second Ward Councilwoman Tina Houghton voted to consider the appeal even though she had voted for Gillespie’s tax breaks. She explained that she wanted discussion of the appeal issue. That angered Bernero, who threw down The New York Times that he had been reading during the meeting.

Before the vote, Jeffries asked City Attorney Brig Smith, “If the suspension (of rule nine) fails, is that it for this issue?”

“I believe it would be,” Smith replied, noting the Nov. 15 deadline for filing an appeal.

In other business, two public hearings were held on a planned development by local builder Dave Muylle in the Eastside Neighborhood and also on whether to extend brownfield tax credits to Demmer Properties in north Lansing.

Muylle wants to develop nine parcels of land on roughly one acre just south of Michigan Avenue on Regent and Leslie streets. That includes building seven cottage-style homes among six existing homes, along with a community space and parking.

Before he can do that, the Council would need to vote to rezone the parcels all together under a residential zone that allows for higher density housing.

Three people spoke during the public comment on Muylle’s project, two of whom offered support for it.

“If it wasn’t for new projects like this, I’d be living in Okemos,” Jody Washington, an East Village resident, said.

Marti Wheeler, also an east side resident, agreed with Washington. “He (Muylle) is a visionary. I look forward to seeing it.”

City Council regular John Pollard was the only opposition to Muylle’s project, citing Lansing’s “glut of housing” that needs to be filled first.

Wheeler and Pollard were the only two to address the Demmer brownfield tax extension, with Wheeler in favor and Pollard against.

Demmer is seeking a 20-year extension on its 10-year brownfield plan that was approved in 1999 for its property on Larch Street in north Lansing. The financing would be used to build a new ballistics testing facility and also clean up contaminated soil, which Demmer has been advised to clean by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Depending on which method Demmer uses to clean the soil beneath its facility at 1600 N. Larch St., cleanup costs range from $335,000 to $1.1 million.

Chuck Barvieri, a representative from Demmer, said the company would know “within a year or two” which method it would take to clear the soil.

In other the business, the Council unanimously approved four resolutions that pay tribute to two longtime Lansing residents, transfer a liquor license and deny a special assessment claim for Lansing resident Nathan Thompson, who was fined $1,257.06 for excess trash and weeds on his property at 1117 W. Barnes Ave.